In Honor of Tisha B’av: Tracing the Jewish History of Shanghai

The Ohel Moishe Synagogue in Shanghai, now a museum.

By Nat Frum

(SHANGHAI) — There are no signs in Hebrew, delis, or men in tallitot to indicate that you’ve entered the former Jewish ghetto in Shanghai. Rather, the only hint you’ll see is the occasional sign or sidewalk marker that reads “ark shanghai.” Unfortunately, this seems to be the only enduring impact on the Shanghai landscape made by some 20,000 Jewish refugees who came here during the Second World War.

While thousands of Jewish refugees (many of them Austrian) found safety from the murderous Nazi regime in the Hongkou district of northern Shanghai, most returned to either Europe or Israel after the war. However, the Chinese government has converted the Ohel Moishe synagogue, built by Russian Jews in 1927 — and the place of refuge for these thousands — into quite an impressive museum.

In Shanghai this summer for several weeks on a teaching program, I decided to visit the museum in honor of Tisha B’Av (which begins this Saturday), the day of mourning for the destruction of the ancient temples and Jewish tragedies in general.

Happily, the story of the Jews in Shanghai is sometimes referred to as the “Miracle of Shanghai.” During the war, the city was controlled by the Japanese, who resisted German pressure to execute the Jews. The Japanese refused, and opted instead to allow the Jews to live in the ghetto. They set up what was called a “Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees” where Jews spent their time unmolested, and even welcomed, by their 100,000-plus Shanghai neighbors. By the time the Jews left after the war, they referred to the city as their “Noah’s Ark.”

When I first entered the museum, I was greeted by an English-speaking tour guide (not something typical of Shanghai) who showed me and my companion around the museum. The first room you see is the actual synagogue: The chairs of the modest synagogue points westwards towards Israel, which is somewhat disorienting to those of us who have only been in a synagogue in the western hemisphere.

After that, we were led through room after room of artifacts left behind by the former inhabitants. These ranged from a collection of books left behind by one Jewish family to original traveling papers stamped with Nazi swastikas. There were several things that were left behind in the synagogue, from shofars to menorahs. Across the street is the rebuilt White Horse Inn. Once a popular hangout for Jewish refugees in Shanghai, the inn now serves as a café. Unfortunately, the original building was demolished.

While almost all of the former ghetto is gone, this sight is a must see for all tourists in Shanghai – regardless of religion. Especially if one needs a refuge from the heat!

Nat Frum recently graduated from Swarthmore College, PA.